COAL #15: 1971 Datsun 1200 Coupe and Sedan – The Flight Attendant and Librarian Sisters of the Economy Car World

The Datsun 1200 and Toyota Corolla were Japan’s entrants in America’s economy car arms race of the early 1970’s.  VW’s Beetle had long ruled the economy car sales mountain, but the Japanese were quick learners, and they had their sights set on American sales.

Although the Beetle’s sales were down, it was still selling over 331,000 cars annually.  Its days appeared numbered though, as it was increasingly viewed as a car of the past, not of the future.  The Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega were proffered by US manufacturers as just the thing to beat back the foreign invasion.

In an increasingly broughamtastic world, Datsun offered a set of fraternal twin sister models to Americans looking to save some cash at purchase and at the fuel pump.

The year was 1977, and my friend Dan was starting his third year of college.  His younger sister (my girlfriend and future wife) was set to join him, and they needed a dependable car while away at school.  It was 96 miles from their home in Riverside, CA to the college in Thousand Oaks, so good old American iron didn’t seem like a great idea in a time of high gas prices.  The Vega had already been exposed as a Deadly Sin, and the Pinto was gaining a reputation as “the BBQ that seats four”.

Japanese cars were a far larger part of the automotive landscape in Southern California than elsewhere in the country.  American manufacturers seemed to view economy cars as penalty boxes designed to provide transportation until you could afford to better yourself and move up to a “real” car.  Japanese manufacturers however, viewed small cars as good cars on their own, just at a smaller scale.

Datsun had developed a good reputation with its 510 and 240Z models, and its 1200 Coupe looked like a late 60’s Mustang fastback that had shrunk 20% in the wash.  Its sexy proportions looked just right to my eye, with no wasted origami lines as seen on its B210 replacement.  Its butterscotch color was typical of the era – something that you don’t see much of today in the land of black, grey and white.

When we talk about that shrunk scale, it interesting to contrast the 1200 with a contemporary Ford Pinto.  The 1200 Coupe was 150.8 inches long, 58.9 inches wide and weighed 1,630 pounds.  The 1971 Pinto, the lightest and shortest of the series, was 163 inches long, 69.8 inches wide (!), and 2,015 pounds.  Different strokes for different folks, but Ford and Datsun obviously had different visions of what a small car should be.

The interior was comfortable for two, and passable for four if the two students in the back hadn’t brought their legs with them to college.   The interior materials were early 70’s black vinyl, but everything was screwed together well and didn’t make you feel like a cheapskate driving a second rate car.

Looking at the back seat, note that the seat folded down in the 1200 Coupe, creating a long loading area for college moves or cozy sleeping for two people on long college treks.  This sexy Flight Attendant sister definitely had some tricks up her sleeve!

The dash sported three round pods for real gauges, an AM radio, carpet on the floor and a slick shifting four speed that fell readily to hand.

The 1200cc A series engine was about as honest and sweet of a powerplant as you could get.  It too looked like 2/3 of a Chevy six cylinder that had also been shrunk in the wash.  It had five main bearings for longevity and overhead valves for simplicity.  69 horsepower came at 6,000 rpm, and redline was 6,400 rpm, so it loved to rev – a marked contrast to the Vega’s peak power at 4,400 rpm – and the Vega had an overhead cam!  These A series engines were also remarkably tough, perfect for non-attentive college students.

The four speed transmission shifted easily and accurately, allowing its driver to take full advantage of the little engine’s willingness to rev.  The car’s low weight, light clutch and low shifting effort also made this the perfect car for a new driver to learn to drive a manual transmission.

The Datsun’s suspension was conventional, with Macpherson struts up front and a live rear axle with leaf springs out back.  The ride was certainly not as smooth as the typical malaise era luxo-barge, but the flip side was that the car was fun to drive and loved being tossed through corners.  Top speed was a little over 90 mph, and you really had to work to get less than 30 mpg in daily driving.  Reasonable highway speeds could easily return in excess of 40 mpg.

The 1200 was also conventional in design and execution, no front wheel drive or fancy overhead cams for this one, but it was rock solid in its reliability and fuel economy.  It was as honest as a car could be with excellent fit and finish – something that could rarely be said for contemporary American cars with their famous “beer cans left in doors” assembly quality.  Long after the kids left college, the little 1200 stayed with the parents for a number of years, providing dependable and frugal service.

The Datsun 1200 competed directly with the Toyota Corolla, and both were very similar in many details.  The Datsun was considered a bit sportier and to handle better, and the Toyota to ride a bit better, but both were excellent choices and above most of the competition.  Toyota eventually realized that ‘Mericans always wanted “MORE POWER!”, so they dropped a larger engine into their Corolla (with 45% more power than the Datsun) and became the performance economy car.  Datsun followed the 1200 with the bizarrely styled (to my eyes) B210 with a 1,288 or 1,397 cc version of the A series engine, which gave great economy, but was no match for Toyota’s superb 1,588 cc Corolla in the power department.

Non stock wheels and exhaust, but this angle shows off the 2/3 of a Mustang styling

The little Datsun racked up the miles as it went between college and home, college and spring break, college and friend’s families and all points in between.  As 55 mph was the national speed limit, it could cruise at any reasonable speed for hours at a time without breaking a sweat.  Being college age, any highway noise simply gave the driver and passengers even more reason to turn up the radio and sing along.

Oh, and today when we’re used to 15 or even 17 inch wheels on “economy” cars, the Datsun used 155SR-12 tires and wheels.  I’m out of the fatherhood age, but I believe that this 12″ size wheel is still used on many baby strollers, so nothing has gone to waste.

In 1979, Dan was graduating and my now fiancé needed her own set of wheels.  The little 1200 had been a great car, so what could I do for an encore?

Since this was still the dark ages (pre-interwebs), I scoured the LA Times, Auto Trader and Thrifty Nickle newspapers for a suitable replacement.  I wasn’t interested in the newer B210, as its science fiction styling was a little too out there.  After a few weeks of searching, I found an interesting ad – “1971 Datsun 1200, needs work, $750”.  I drove out to the address provided and found a blue 1200 Sedan, not a Coupe, sitting forlornly in an apartment parking garage.

Its body was in good condition with heavily oxidized paint, and the owner said that their mechanic had diagnosed that it needed a new engine.  In starting the engine it was definitely missing a cylinder, but otherwise appeared to be serviceable.  We negotiated to $600, cash changed hands, and we arranged a time for my Dad and I to return with his truck and a towbar to retrieve this lonely, sad looking little car.

Taking the car to a friend’s house (who graciously let me use his garage for car projects), I pulled the engine to see what I had.  The engine was actually in good shape, but something had definitely happened to the rings on the #4 cylinder.  New rings, new gaskets, new clutch (while I was in there anyway) and everything was back purring the way it should be.  Some rubbing compound made the single stage paint shine again, and in quick order the 1200 was smiling and ready for service.

The Sedan was the more practical, less sexy sibling to the Coupe.  Where the Coupe was sleek and sporty, the Sedan was upright and straight laced, the practical librarian versus the flight attendant sister.  The cars had the same engine, transmission, suspension and tires, but the body panels and dash were different given their different target markets.  The windshield was also different, as the Sedan had more headroom and greater total height for greater comfort.  The trunk was larger on the Sedan but the rear seat did not fold down, so long loads weren’t welcome.

Although just the Coupe and Sedan made their way to the US, Japan had a full range of vehicles with a Coupe, Sedan, 4 door Sedan, 2 door Station Wagon, 4 door station wagon and even a pickup truck.  The 4 door and station wagons looked just like their 510 siblings, just at 7/8’s scale.  These other models were also available in non-US countries throughout the world.

The Sedan was a fun little runabout, and my fiancé considered it to be just the right size to drive – much preferable to the Dodge D-200 truck that she had learned to drive on.  The Sedan was also not nearly as tall as that D-200 & Camper combination, so she never had to worry about running into the McDonalds drive-thru overhang – repeatedly – as she was known to do when taking her younger siblings in the camper.

For all of the front wheel drive, space efficient cars that would come later, the 1200 Flight Attendant Coupe & Librarian Sedan did everything one could reasonably ask of them without complaint.  They provided dependable service and got excellent gas mileage right through the day they were sold years later.  A small pickup would be pretty handy in 1983 to help fixing up our first house, and my wife was good with making the switch.

But that’s a story for another COAL…